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Roberta Smith Throws Weight Behind Rescuing the American Folk Art Museum

Roberta Smith, NY Times art critic

Better late than never.

NY Times art critic Roberta Smith has officially joined the Save the American Folk Art Museum campaign, with a powerful opinion piece (not in today’s paper but online now)—As Folk Art Museum Teeters, a Grave Loss Looms.

Roberta ends her piece this way:

The transfer and dispersal of the collection should be fought to the bitter end, with every ounce of passion and ingenuity that the museum and its supporters can muster. New York, so fabulously full of so many kinds of refined high art, needs a museum dedicated to the great D.I.Y. low of the folk and outsider kind.

Unfortunately, the ball may have already rolled too far down the slope. Smith reports that “the [AFAM] board heard proposals at a meeting last Thursday from the Smithsonian [and] the Brooklyn [both of which are interested in acquiring AFAM’s collection, should the museum fold] and also from staff members determined to keep the museum going. It will vote on the proposals in a meeting this week [emphasis added].

At the groundbreaking ceremony for the Downtown Whitney last May, Mayor Bloomberg spoke excitedly about the resourcefulness of New York City in initiating and sustaining such a rich panoply of cultural activities. But as I listened, the already announced plans for a lamentable contraction of such activities immediately came to mind—the closing of the Folk Art Museum’s main building of W. 53rd Street; the departure of another financially beleaguered cultural institution, the New York City Opera, from its long-time home at Lincoln Center; the realization by the Whitney itself that it could not afford to follow its original plan of maintaining a two-building institution when its new facility opened in 2015.

Assuming that the AFAM’s board is going to take the easy way out and ship its riches off to a larger institution (and one not exclusively dedicated to folk art), there remains the obstacle of the public approval process: The Attorney General’s office and the State Education Department must weigh in.

One thing I have never understood (and which the museum has never explained, despite my queries) is why AFAM sold its midtown building for $31.2 million to the contiguous Museum of Modern Art, without first putting it on the open market to see if it could possibly fetch more. It seems to me that due diligence and fiduciary responsibility dictate an attempt to maximize the proceeds that could be applied towards the museum’s survival. It also seems to me that the Attorney General’s office, which rubber-stamped the deal, should have insisted that due diligence be exercised.

In reviewing any agreement that would mean the end of an institution enriching New York’s cultural life for the last 50 years, the Attorney General’s office should take a closer look at the real estate transaction that it hastily rubber-stamped and also insist, in the public interest, on a longer, more thorough exploration of options for keeping AFAM alive.

Mayor Bloomberg, cultural enthusiast and philanthropist that he is, should take a hands-on approach to this rescue.

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